Sermon by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff for November 14, 2021, Remembrance Sunday

From the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”

In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

In modern-day Turkey there is a town called Bodrum in Southwest Anatolia which looks across the Aegean Sea to Greece, and over 2000 years ago the region was indeed Greek and known as Caria, with the capital city known by the rather more romantic name of Halicarnassus, where there once lived in the 3rd Century BC the poet Callimachus of Cyrene, who mourned the loss of another poet by the name Heraclitus (not it should be stressed the 5th Century BC Pre-Socratic) and wrote for him an epigraph.

All of this is useful to know when one reads the famous lines of the translation by the former Eton Schoolmaster William (Johnson) Cory,1823–1892, which renders that Epitaph in the following words:

THEY told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember’d how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

The translation has long been admired and is very brilliant in the way that it captures the unique poignancy of the original Greek and – even more important – the sense of wistful, deep and irretrievable loss that is occasioned by death.

Yet what about that last line? Is this really what in the end what we must all face :  For death he taketh all away?

Is it only memories he cannot take?

There surely is the huge question that is posed by every death and it is merely a question amplified when we think of all the lives lost in war as we do today.

——————–

It was President Woodrow Wilson who made famous a phrase first forged by H.G. Wells[1] when he declared that the First World War “Is a war to end all wars” while adding brightly (in justification of his declaration of war on Germany), that it would also “make the world safe for democracy”.   

In point of fact it was followed by what David Fromkin has aptly called (and used as the title of his book) A Peace to End All Peace, or to put that another way since it ended, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” as George Santayana observed in 1922[2] (in a riposte to Wilson).

Indeed, it could well be argued that much of world history ever since has been but a series of footnotes to the First World War. A war which of itself was an appalling calamity. While exact figures can be debated, estimates suggest that around 10 million military personnel died, and 7 million civilians, with 21 million wounded, and around 7.7 million missing and/or imprisoned.[3]

The Second World War, which was in so many ways a legacy of the First, left something over 60 million people dead[4] with somewhere between 38 to 55 million civilians killed, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine.

At the risk of blurring the hideousness of all this in a blizzard of statistics, it is also worth recalling that the worldwide spread of the Communist movement (which we may note was and remains avowedly secular), has claimed around 100 million lives, so far.[5]

So much then for World War I’s legacy of peace….But quite apart from the horrifying scale of the loss of life in the century that followed, there is, too, another epochal aspect, which we are still seeing unfold,  and this is the impact on the place of Western Civilization in the world.

Strangely, I have never seen an analysis of the subsequent societal impact on Britain, Germany France and other European nations of losing so many of an entire generation of future leaders among those killed in the trenches of the Somme, but it has to have been of world historical import.[6]

Yet on top of all that we can but be mindful this year with especial force of recent events in Afghanistan and all the lives lost there.

——————–

So it is that we commemorate today in particular the 2,401 United States military deaths in the War in Afghanistan. Of which 1,921 deaths were the result of hostile action. Then in addition there were the 20,752 American servicemembers who were wounded in action during the war. As well as the 18 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives also died and the further 1,822 civilian contractors who were killed.

In the case of Britain we commemorate the 453 British Service men and women who died in the (thirteen year) period of Britain’s military involvement (that formally ended with the lowering of the Union flag at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in October 2014, although the UK retained a presence until the recent withdrawal).

Given the many parallels that were discerned by some in looking at the final scenes of the withdrawal this summer from Afghanistan with those from the withdrawal from Vietnam it is worth recalling too that in that conflict 58,220 U.S. military lives were lost.

But whatever the statistics, it is always the thought of each individual life lost that brings home to us just what such deaths entail.

As indeed all those millennia it did to Callimichus when he mourned Heraclitus.

No matter how many millions die in conflicts, each life ended is a deeply moving loss, leaving those who mourn with an irreplaceable void – blessed though they may be – in the words of the Beatitudes we just heard in the Gospel.

All of which brings out that the task before us in the face of such calamity is to search and to dwell upon the meaning to be found beyond the brutal fact of death and to do so here as Christians, whom we are assured do not mourn in vain.  But in the case of what may seem to us to be early death as is so often the case in war, we have still large questions such as why now?

There must be many contemplating lives lost in Afghanistan and our abrupt withdrawal who ask: What was the point? What meaning can we give that can somehow mitigate the loss now – even if we do still hold on to the ultimate Christian hope?

If we turn back to the First World War – a war perhaps uniquely celebrated for its poets – we have to recall that Wilfred Owen died in 1918 mere days before the Armistice; did that make his loss seem somehow less meaningful or more pointless?

In war it is in fact all too often tempting to ask – after men died securing this or that single trench, or fortification, or were left stranded as in the case of the Dardanelles (the ancient Hellespont), or the Guardsmen aboard the Sir Galahad in the Falklands: what was the point? 

Yet, if anything, such bitter realities only sharpen the particular meaning and particular value that the example of such sacrifice presents.  

And there all at once is the key word here – one that I suspect our culture in general finds ever less easy to understand – by which I mean the word “sacrifice”.

We shall shortly sing a hymn whose lines in the opening verse build up relentlessly to this concept and do so by framing sacrifice as consequent upon love – which it references no less than six times in six lines:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Clearly we are in deep territory, but thinking of the particular once again, may help.  Thus we might think of one of the films made about the terrible Rwandan massacre of 1994, entitled Shooting Dogs (2005), where John Hurt plays the part of a Roman Catholic priest (Fr. Christopher), who finds himself entrapped in a school compound with several thousand Tutsi villagers. [7]

They arrive and encamp under the protection of United Nations troops, only to find that the troops are expecting an order to withdraw. Outside the compound gates, their erstwhile neighbours, armed with machetes and clubs, simply await the departure of the UN monitors.

The terrible inevitability of their fate becomes apparent, to the point that some of the trapped villagers ask the troops if they would at least shoot their children, so as to spare them being butchered more slowly later….

The priest eventually has a chance to leave himself, on the trucks with the troops, but in fact remains – staying with the people and he is killed (shot) as the massacre duly unfolds.

Earlier in the film a volunteer teacher questions the appropriateness of his continuing to celebrate the Eucharist in such terrible circumstances, only to be informed simply: “I am a priest. This is what I do.”

The immediacy of the juxtaposition of the Eucharist, with its Christian understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ made for all of us in his death on the Cross, being celebrated in the Mass, ultimately at the cost of his life by the priest, in the midst of an act of genocide,  provides a wider context. One that brings into intense focus the action of love that ultimately informs sacrifice in each case, as something offered to the point of offering up even life itself for another. – However dry that sounds when spelled out beside  the immediacy of the death and butchery in that moment in Rwanda, it still has huge force.

And yet it is true too that sacrifice is an idea charged with paradox – which is to say an idea but partly grasped in this life.

The most extreme form of sacrifice is that in which a person gives up his or her life or its meaning for the sake of another. Our instinct is surely to see this as perhaps the most praiseworthy of all the acts of which we are capable.

When we honour those fallen in war it is because they gave their all in the terms of this world.[8] 

But what of the suicide bomber – where there may certainly be courage and even at some level an intension of self-sacrifice for some wider good? 

Yet we surely have to say that the good imagined as justifying the act is simply not there, to think otherwise is an objective error.  Indeed our instinctive perceptions of the heinous character of such acts arguably makes them pointers to the objectivity of good and evil.

That in a sense is the meaning behind the second verse of I vow to thee my country, for it points to the Christian view that conflict is not the way of the redeemed world to come that is the true home of all Christians in the world to come whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” .[9]

We surely do want to say that the meaning and value of sacrifice stands, regardless of the immediate context in which any serviceman or woman’s life is taken – by which I mean that there is virtue in the willingness to offer the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life in service of the Nation (and thereby the good).

The fact of that remarkable resolve is implicit in all service in the armed forces – and it challenges uniquely the shallow banalities which so much in contemporary culture offers us, by way of distraction from the vital question of what meaning our lives really have.  (Just as the lives of the martyrs and saints of the Church do also and those committed to the fulness of religious life.) Commitment at such a level is a life defining act that only makes sense within a particular world view and deeply held beliefs.

All of this also calls us to recognise the deep fact that ultimate meaning in our lives is always to be found in the other.  It is always outside the self – not in that ever more demanding ego which urges us always to put the self first -– in a state of radically anarchic self-absorption – which our culture seems ever more strongly to commend .[10]  To give in and do that is of course to lose oneself – this illustrates the radically paradoxical nature of ultimate meaning in this life.

Indeed this is the insight of George Steiner’s argument (in the End of Tragedy) that true tragedy seems to require a universe of real —which is to say transcendent— meaning, which is why it is so plausible to argue that in a post-modern universe —where the possibility of such truly deep meaning is effectively denied— we arrive ultimately not merely with Fukuyama at the end of history but at the end of tragedy as well.

To make the point another way, “tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence” which is why George Steiner argued that true tragedy is now dead because “His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon, or Macbeth or Athalie”.

The metaphysical universe of Christianity thus (in yet another aspect of paradox) makes real the possibility of tragedy (in contrast to the utter meaninglessness and ultimate chaos of nihilism) even as it also points to the possibility, and further, the actuality, of a redeemed world that therefore escapes tragedy in the end.

(That is why for the Christian,  life can never in the end be tragic in the classical sense and why I have carefully not said that every life ended in war is a tragedy – for that is a cliché we as Christians must reject.)

But is there not also disclosed here, a vital epistemic presupposition – which is made evident by asking, “What must be the case in order to ground the possibility of ultimate meaning?” Does not coherence itself, depend upon a common apprehension of objective value to which we may communally appeal?  Without such a state of affairs language itself will not work.

As the philosopher Bernard Williams observed, “Children learn language in many ways and in many different kinds of situation, but one essential way is that they hear sentences being used in situations in which those situations are plainly true.”[11]

Grant this, and it becomes clear that one consequence of the loss of any authority sufficiently transcendent to command a common allegiance is ultimately the loss of the possibility of sustaining a common discourse too – something we see all around us, in our cultural fragmentation despite the supposedly ever wider bounds of globalization.

The fallen whom we commemorate then today, through the magnitude of their act of sacrifice stand thus with timeless importance for the possibility of transcendent meaning and the claim upon us of true good, over and above the passing fancies that can only ever be the stuff of mere human constructs.

As Bernard Williams further observed, in the context of literature, “Authority accrues to possession of, or capacity for, truth of the high order that readers from Aristotle to Friedrich Nietzsche have associated with the books most worth reading” and it was Nietzsche who observed (in The Birth of Tragedy to which Steiner was responding) that more specifically, “Poetry desires to be [. . .] the unvarnished expression of the truth.”

“Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; … Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (as Shelley put it in A Defence of Poetry 1051/2).

Indeed a key part of Shelley’s argument in the Defence is concerned with his conviction that prophecy (by which is meant a call back to truth) is an essential “attribute of poetry.”  For him the poet “not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but beholds the future in the present,” which enables poets to “foreknow the true spirit of events” (Shelley 1026- 27). [12]

Hence for him too is the central importance of “the sole law” of  “Love” which “should govern the moral world” which takes straight back to the words of I vow to thee my country. Such a perspective does much perhaps to explain why it is poetry that has become so powerful in shaping how we have grappled with both the horrors and the meaning of the Great War in particular, as it brings out with unique force the weight of meaning that attaches to the lives that were lost.

And that brings us back, I suggest, to the problem posed – however implicitly – in the pathos of Callimachus’ epitaph for Heraclitus.

Remember those last lines:

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

The forlorn aspect is that it ONLY memories that remain in the end – everything else falls away.

Such a perspective sets the stage well for contemporary nihilism and the sense of melancholy it must surely invite for life itself can seem somehow ultimately absurd….

Hence in a famous, or rather infamous, paper, “The Absurd”, Thomas Nagel in 1970 set out a certain conception of the absurd and then argued that there are good grounds for thinking that such absurdity applies to our lives, thereby rendering them devoid of meaning.

Substantially the problem is essentially a problem of value.

That is to say, what we seek is a concrete underpinning of the most fundamental values that make up our lives. If these values are indeed just arbitrary, and hence not really valuable at all, then one’s life is rendered devoid of the meaning that we implicitly ascribe to it in virtue of our finding it to exhibit such (apparently genuine) values – and hence absurdity arises.

Now, one way to define a fundamental goal of one’s life is as being a goal the value of which does not depend on the value of any of one’s other goals. This is but to say that one will not need to appeal to any further considerations in order to defend their value, since they will be valuable for their own sake.

And it is worth registering in saying that – the large point that Nagel never offered an argument for supposing that such value is actually impossible.

Thus in the end, Nagel’s argument merely re-established that the problem of the meaning of life: rests on whether one’s fundamental goals have (or even could have) final value, which turns on arguments that are necessarily outside the debate about the meaning of life itself.  Indeed they surely collapse into ultimately ontological questions about the nature of God.

Looked at from that perspective, if we find compelling the view that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived – since only such would be adequate to ground the world as we find it – there is not a great deal of work required to suggest that such a God must necessarily be perfect and that we are part of his creation. (Since he is the cause of all that is outside himself.)

As such, our telos and authentic goals could only ever be ultimately grounded in God, which thereby entails that they are objective and maximally underpinned for grounding the fundamental values that should inform our lives and deeds if we are to be authentic to ourselves and the calling that is ours. 

Thus is firmly set both the substantive meaningfulness of life and the grounding for the entire Christian narrative of redemption – and the hope that is in us whereby, in Christ we should indeed “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

In this universe great deeds have great meaning transcendent of the person making them – as does with the ultimate self-sacrifice of those whose lives were shed for others.

This gives authentic and unequalled the weight to those famous words often said after two minute’s silence and the Last Post, written by Lawrence Binyon in For the Fallen, after World War I and its terrible price, for yet

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

And we can truly say of the fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them …

AMEN.

__________________

[1] In an article entitled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News on Aug. 14, 1914 and used three years later by Wilson.

[2] In his book Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

[3] It is worth noting, as Dan Snow has recently pointed out, that an earlier conflict was possibly even more bloody, namely that in southern China of the mid-nineteenth century. Conservative estimates put the number dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion between 20 million and 30 million.  In terms of percentage of the population killed, the figure was 2% for Britain in WW1, and this actually was half that suffered by the population during the Civil War when 4% of the population of England and Wales died, while an even higher proportion died in Scotland and Ireland.  See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836. Again, re. WW1, of the 6 million men mobilized in Britain 700,000 died which, as a proportion of those under arms, was in fact lower than that of the Crimean War of 1853-56.

[4] Estimates range from 50-80 million

[5] “100 Years of Communism—and 100 Million Dead. The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history”, David Satter, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6, 2017

[6] About 12% of the British army’s enlisted soldiers were killed during the war, but 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – amounting to 20% of those who served from that one school. The wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, and the future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers and another very severely wounded, and an uncle was captured. During the course of the was over 200 Generals were killed which reflects their close engagement in the conflict.

[7] Michael Kirwan, Eucharist and Sacrifice, New Blackfriars , March 2007, Vol. 88, No. 1014, pp. 213-227.

[8] But is this true of anyone who gives up their life?  Is death in war indistinguishable from suicide?  The answer has to be no.  Suicide if it is rationally undertaken – which very often it is not (as that if is a very large one), is likely to be the expression of weakness and surrender rather strength. Hence the sense in which it can indeed be selfish, where death in war is not. Suicide can sometimes be excused perhaps in the face of mental anguish and suffering, but it can never praised and as a means for avoiding something else it is an act of retreat.

[9] And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

[10] To borrow a phrase of David Lyle Jeffrey in discussing Terry Eagleton, Can Faustus be Saved?

[11] See his Truth and Truthfulness, p.45. In the words of Alexander Prescott-Couch: Bernard Williams, in this work, “…seeks to defend the value of truth from so-called “deniers,” those who deny that truth plays an important role in our lives. For Williams, defending the value of truth involves defending the “virtues of truth,” that is, dispositions that lead one to acquire and espouse true beliefs. In Williams’s account, these dispositions are two: Sincerity and Accuracy. The former is the disposition to express what one believes when appropriate, while the latter is directed toward acquiring reliable information through carefully weighing evidence and avoiding self-deception and wishful thinking. Williams is concerned to define and defend these dispositions as well as show how agents can be motivated to manifest them.

[12] Another informing principle is Shelley’s conception of empathy, the capacity for imaginative sympathy, as the human faculty out of which true poetry springs, and the one to which it is addressed,  for ultimately here,

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.

The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . .

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. (Shelley, op cit. 1032-33)